Heart & Soul: Mason Jar Music, The Brooklyn Creative Collective & Residential Studio

May 23, 2012 by  

In October, on the eve of her latest album release, Feist debuted her new repertoire to a small audience in a clandestine location in NYC. Joined by an 18-piece orchestra, she and her band performed the dynamic songs off Metals in a reverberant crypt at Church of the Intercession in Harlem.

Mason Jar arranger/composer and multi-instrumenalist Ian McLellan Davis in the Feist ensemble during setup. Photo by Sasha Arutyunova.

Only 150 guests got to see the spectacle live (and help pad the chamber), but that just scratches the surface of what the audience for this concert will be. The Brooklyn-based creative collective known as Mason Jar Music staged the entire production for video – part of its popular Mason Jar Music Presents series that captures artists performing in old buildings around NYC, late at night.

“We called in every favor for this one,” says Daniel Knobler, producer, engineer and Mason Jar co-founder. “We handled every aspect of the production – transcribed the arrangements from the record and put the orchestral ensemble together, recorded the audio, did the live sound and monitor mixes, filmed, art-directed and post-produced it.

“And it nearly killed us,” he adds, cracking up his Mason Jar co-founder Jon Seale. He’s exaggerating, but maybe still slightly amazed they managed to pull this one off.

The Feist concert was Mason Jar’s largest-scale, highest-profile production to date. And the multi-tasking – even though these guys seem like born multi-taskers – can be overwhelming. It’s only been a year since many in the Mason Jar collective graduated from NYU – Knobler and Seale from the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, others from Tisch, or the Jazz or Music Composition programs – and in that time, Mason Jar has become a full-fledged multimedia production company.

“This is just the way things are moving,” Seale says. “It’s really difficult to be in the game if all you do is audio.

“Dan and I went to school for record production. It’s what we do on a day-to-day basis, but in terms of getting the word out there about Mason Jar, about us as producers, the videos have done so much more than we could have ever done just on our own making records.”

Mason Jar Music Co-Founders (l-r) Daniel Knobler and Jon Seale

We’re sitting in Mason Jar’s basement recording studio in Kensington. It’s a residential studio; the collective largely works and lives in house. Upstairs, you’d likely find a number of other creatives buzzing around on any given day – filmmakers and editors, post sound guys, arrangers, composers and musicians no doubt working on a flurry of projects.

But “Mason Jar Music Presents” is the collective’s calling card.

The flagship video concert series gets right to the Mason Jar ethos – it’s a spirit of keeping things real, of bringing accomplished musicians together in inspiring acoustic spaces and leveraging new technology to capture and share that with the world.

The company’s motto “Preserving Analog Principles in a Digital Age” comes to life through these videos, shot in old churches, schools, abandoned industrial spaces, crypts; the productions seem to draw inspiration from the spaces themselves, and create something new, transcendent, and easily distributed online.

In the midst of the ongoing series – for which they just shot an episode with My Brightest Diamond – Mason Jar Music has additionally been working on an even larger-scale project: a feature-length music documentary on the singer/songwriter Josh Garrels.

Through one of their most popular MJM Presents, featuring Garrels performing in a Manhattan church, the group connected with a patron that funded a trip out to Mayne Island (Vancouver) last summer. Knobler and Seale assembled an ensemble, audio/video crew, and battery-powered recording rig to capture Garrels and the group performing in remote locations all over the island.

Their experience turned out to be movie-sized – as you can gather from The Sea In Between trailer below:

Josh Garrels: The Sea In Between – Trailer from Mason Jar Music on Vimeo.

It might seem overly earnest to some more business-minded, but the Mason Jar aim is true: they’re out to capture authentic performances, and they go to great lengths to do this and to do it in a hardly-done-before fashion.

“All the technological advancements in music production and creation have been really exciting,” notes Seale, “But unfortunately so much of it has been used almost abusively in a way…to create an unrealistic portrayal of what musicians actually do, what they sound like.

“For us, one of the things we’d like to do is to reclaim the technology and say: this is what we could be doing with it…we’re going to take these small high-definition cameras, and these field recorders that can now record 10 channels, and take them somewhere and do something amazing with them. Rather than programming all of our instruments and making our voices sound in tune, etc.”

Crypt Tracking: Engineers Chase Culpon and Daniel Knobler at their recording station for Feist’s performance. Photo by Sasha Arutyunova

INSIDE MASON JAR MUSIC STUDIOS

On the morning of our visit to Mason Jar HQ, Knobler and Seale – who are also bandmates in the funk-folk band Flearoy – had just finished producing a debut full-length album, Roots & Bells, for the sweet, folksy, indie-pop trio Town Hall. Later that afternoon, an 11-piece Afrobeat ensemble EMEFE would be in to track their upcoming album. And work with The Whiskey Collection – a new bluegrass/folk ensemble of Juilliard musicians – was about to begin.

Two of the 11-piece Emefe Afrobeat ensemble tracking at Mason Jar Music.

Down a few steps from a side-door entrance, the homey Mason Jar studio provides a versatile tracking room for the collective’s projects, and a comfortable space for bands.

The live room is home to a colorful spread of vintage and well-worn instruments – Hammond organ and Wurlitzer, Silvertone banjo, full drum kit and percussion accoutrements; and the control room is a narrow sideline off the vocal/iso booth.

The Mason Jar Studio is a modest affair but anyone who works here has likely been DIYing it for long enough to see that their bases are more than covered – by the Pro Tools HD system + True Systems Precision 8 and Hamptone mic pres,  Manley Vox Box, Neve 8816 summing mixer and LA2A and 1176s in the racks. Like in their mobile rigs, the studio equipment has been carefully selected, hard-earned, and in some cases… sponsored.

Starting out in 2010, Mason Jar self-funded their video projects, but a grant from NYU and a Kickstarter campaign helped them stay in the game long enough to establish a reputation.

Support from a number of gear sponsors, including Peluso and Sennheiser/Neumann, Gotham Sound and ARRI, helps keep equipment rental fees at a minimum. Even though clients are coming to them now, says Knobler, “the nature of these big video shoots requires so many people in so many disciplines that even the largest budgets get eaten up pretty quickly.”

Knobler and Seale cite Motown and Daptone Records, and The Band, as influences in what they do. And new technology is what has enabled them to take up and advance these great traditions with little budget.

“Some of our favorite records are live – like Aretha Franklin and Allman Brothers records – from back when some of the best records were live records,” says Seale, “And people really responded to them because they felt like they were there. That’s a feeling that we want to bring to all of our projects.

“I think people respond to our videos because it makes them feel a little bit closer to that time when something was conceived and created.”

Jon Seale during the Laura Gibson “MJM Presents”, recorded and filmed in a Long Island City furniture warehouse. Photo by Michael George.

From a business perspective, Knobler describes the videos as a “front” to the rest of the creative work he and the Mason Jar family produce. “From Feist, two of our arrangers ended up writing horn charts for Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear’s solo record,” Knobler cites.

“Our arrangers/composers do film scores and orchestrations, and we have filmmakers who do documentaries and narrative music videos and concert videos. And a lot of the work feeds each other – [i.e.] we did some music for the Food Network, and now our cinematographer is working with the Food Network.”

Finally, the videos present Knobler and Seale as producer/engineers with a lot of heart and soul, and a lot of savvy. And these days, that goes a long way when you’re trying to make a name for yourself.

Knobler puts it best: “The videos have been fun, and promotional for Mason Jar, and they’ve enabled us to work with some artists who – let’s be honest – would never have come to our basement to make a record.”

Visit www.masonjarmusic.com for more information on Knobler, Seale and the other Mason Jar members, and to get in touch.